Ready Player One
It probably comes as no surprise to you that book to movie/TV adaptations are all the rage. After the successes that Hollywood has seen with The Hunger Games, Divergent, Game of Thrones, and The Martian, it seems like every book is getting optioned. Part of this isn’t surprising, but it is a little off-setting to me. In business, you want to go with proven strategies. Successful models will always be more appealing. But I suspect that there are a lot of franchises being set up to go nowhere at best and down the drain at worst.
In the past year or so, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, Wes Chu’s Time Salvager, and Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. Have all been optioned for various movie, tv, and video game productions (sources hyperlinked).
Let’s start by talking about what this means.
According to legal-dictionary.com, an option means:
A right, which operates as a continuing offer, given in exchange for consideration—something of value—to purchase or lease property at an agreed price and terms within a specified time.
In a way, all of the buzz over this is a bit misleading. Being “optioned” means that a company has bought the rights to produce an adaptation of the story. The company can then take the story and start developing scripts, production ideas, and testing the story on potential markets. What “optioned” doesn’t mean is that those adaptations will necessarily be made or that they will be made any time soon.
An option is a way for a company to test the waters. There may be contract terms which require certain things like script development or production, but this isn’t inherent to the term. To boot, an option is like a lease, after a certain time, you’re done. The copyright holder can move on to the next offer.
What’s more important is (1) what company has optioned a story, (2) if they have anyone on contract for the story, (3) the popularity of the story, and (4) if the story allows the company to tap into a new or a wide audience.
For instance, saying that a small company has optioned a story, but has no one on board to adapt it, it’s only a fairly popular story, and it’s not going to tap into or expand the audience they already have, means less than a large company optioning a story with an enthusiastic and popular team on board for a story that has broken the NYT bestseller list.
Optioning doesn’t mean so much in and of itself, but there has been a slew of optioning, by fairly established companies. Many of these optioning deals have teams to help the potential production on board and are picking up niche, but well received books. Wes Chu’s novel Time Salvager , for instance, was optioned by Paramount with Michael Bay lined up to direct and Chu set to be the executive producer. That’s a serious deal. Considering the works that have been announcing optioning, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that in the next 5 or so years we will get a large number of movie adaptations of hit works.
Optioning: Good? Bad? Meh?
Part of me is ridiculously excited to see so many SFF adaptations (potentially) in the works. It’s been so long since we got an SFF adaptation that was truly energizing. Afterall, there’s so much potential in SFF that hasn’t been tapped into. Star Wars and Star Trek reboots will only get you so far and Scyfy hasn’t made a tv show worthy of weekly watching for quite some time. Lately more shows like Game of Thrones and Orphan Black have been on the rise. The idea of a new, gritty scifi show, or an engaging fantasy show sans-Starks is exciting. But, I’m hesitant about the swath of adaptations for a few reasons.
Choosing stories for the medium
Popular stories are the first place a company is going to look for a potential adaptation. There’s a built in market and the story has been (at least somewhat) vetted. This has the potential to be fantastic, but also means that there is a far more limited field of what’s being considered. And, frankly, plenty of popular science fiction and fantasy stories don’t lend themselves well to visual medium.
Take, for example, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. Justice won a Hugo for best novel, an impressive feat made more impactful because it was a debut novel. The story truly pushes the limits of science fiction storytelling and is absolutely captivating. But, a lot of the story is not immediately appealable and the storytelling is extremely complex. It’s difficult to see immediately how a television show will convey the inability of Justice One Esk (the main character) to see gender. The descriptions of how One Esk describes the politics is extremely detailed with a long backstory that may be difficult to build on a visual platform where there is limited time and information. This is not to say it cannot be done or cannot be done well, simply that it will require alterations and reworking.
As a more stark example, Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear have been optioned by Lionsgate for production as a movie. The King Killer Chronicles has been optioned before. In 2013, Fox –the same company optioning Leckie’s novel– attempted to develop the books into a TV show. It didn’t wind up happening. Much of Rothfuss’ story may simply be hard to explain visually or be less compelling when turned into a script. Without the insight into Kvothe’s mind and the magic system, the story may lose affect. Similarly the story has a non-traditional subject matter. It’s hard to make a high fantasy story work on screen. The struggle in the book to articulate magical words that you learn suddenly as opposed to through rote practice, the story’s slow pace, the 200 pages of fairy sex, may just not really work for the screen, big or small.
Quality of production
It’s hard to imagine that many start up stories are going to get the money to invest in special effects necessary to really pull-off some of the stories being optioned. The investment in creating a believable version of a magical or science fiction world is large. Even larger the more detailed it gets. Game of Thrones costs HBO almost $6 million per episode to make. This may be lessened by going with a British series model (6-12 episodes per season), but doing so disrupts much of the current television model in the US. Disruption and a major budget investment may simply be less appealing than going for a more traditional story with a greater chance of conventional success.
Flooding the Market
Perhaps this is unwarranted, but I worry about the ability of the current television market to handle a mass influx of SFF stories. It may be popular to contract those stories for a while, but competition combined with the high cost of special effects will likely force many of these stories out of production. I worry that it will stigmatize optioning SFF in the future. This is probably overthinking, because SFF isn’t always seen as a good bet to begin with, but I can’t help taking it into account.
I really am excited to see SFF getting optioned. I just am a worry wart. I want it done well and I want to spread the SFF love. Hopefully that goal is about to be achieved.
Four years after the release of Ready Player One, Ernest Cline’s new release, Armada, has been greatly anticipated. It seems like everywhere you go on the Bookternet, Armada has found its way already. The synopsis promises a video-game loving, 80s filled alien invasion.
I was staring out the classroom window and daydreaming of adventure when I spotted the flying saucer.
I blinked and looked again — but it was still out there, a shiny chrome disc zigzagging around in the sky. My eyes struggled to track the object through a series of increasingly fast, impossibly sharp turns that would have juiced a human being, had there been any aboard. The disc streaked toward the distant horizon… <cut>
I tried to keep my cool. I tried to remain skeptical. I reminded myself that I was a man of science, even if I did usually get a C in it.
Armada is exactly what I had expected it to be: a fun, fast-paced popcorn* read. It features some funny moments, vivid battle scenes, and a whole lot of video game love.
Armada is set up in a strikingly similar vein to Ready Player One. Teen boy who has spent his life without a strong father figure becomes obsessed with video games. Boy spends a lot of time perfecting seemingly useless video game skills. Chaos erupts, and boy ventures out to use his video game skills to save the world. A series of level-ups and a rag tag group of friends he only knew by usernames are the only thing the boy has on his side. Oh, and don’t forget the romantic subplot.
Armada is a slight refinement on Ready Player One. The “bad guy” gets a bit more dimension, there isn’t a ham-fisted attempt at fulfilling the “dystopia” requirement YA has seemed to have lately, and there is a definite dialing back of the 80s references (though they still come out in abundance).
What’s disappointing is that the book could really have been fantastic, but Cline doesn’t take the story to the next level.
The biggest failing in the story is the lack of character development. Our main character, Zack, is 18 and the story is an action-adventure type; I’m not expecting a lot of deep, emotional growth and life-changing revelations. But, had Cline really taken the time to flesh out Zack’s past and current states, had he given the side characters more depth, the story would have really benefited. He had the space to do it, too. There were easily 50 pages worth of people playing video games that could have been cut without injuring the foreshadowing.
In a similar vein, Zack’s love interest, Lex, could have been a great character. Lex is a rebellious programmer who gets caught up in the alien invasion resistance. She’s a valuable asset in that she’s a skilled hacker and generally pretty decisive. Unfortunately, she mostly serves as a magic fix-all for computer issues. There’s no real look at who she is or what she’s even like. We know she’s willing to go to battle, but we don’t actually see Lex for more than five pages. In those five pages, she meets Zack, kisses him, and basically leaves. She may as well have been an AI or nameless IT-worker. She could have been awesome, but Cline skips all of who she is and about 1,000 opportunities for her to advance the plot.
The story itself is about what I had expected. Aliens are coming to destroy Earth. They’re using drones, so they remain a big mystery. When we do find out a bit more of what the aliens are like, it’s in the last 20 pages. Another chapter or two post-crisis would not have gone amiss here.
While Cline does distinctly tone-down the 80s trivia, there is still the unexplained question: why do ALL of these 15-18 year olds know all of this ridiculously obscure 80s trivia? They were born and reached pubescence in the 2010s, is 80s actually a big deal among teens in 2015? I don’t really think so. Granted, I haven’t been a teen for the better part of a decade, so I can’t say for sure. Given that Cline hasn’t been a teen since about the 1980s, I don’t know that he can say any better than I can.
The story, is though, undoubtedly fun. It’s a YA read that isn’t a total turn-off for the adult crowd and is easily a one-sitting read. I just wish that there’d been more to it.
*Popcorn read: light, tasty, not very fulfilling in the long run, but very pleasant while it lasts
I received a copy of Armada for free in exchange for an honest review.
I read Ready Player One to prep for Armada. I’d never picked it up before, though it’s been on my kindle for quite some time and I have had it on audio for almost as long. It was about time.
Ready Player One is a fast-paced adventure story with some fun 80s references. It’s like Spy Kids 3D meets an 80s video arcade. In Cline’s world, virtual reality has taken over. While the world outside becomes increasingly destitute, virtual reality plays an increasingly important role in the distribution of services. Think online high school, but times 1,000. The OASIS (the platform that runs the VR) is huge and its influence seems ever expanding. When the OASIS creator dies, he reveals a secret: he has hidden a series of tests within the OASIS. The player to find and solve all three tests first will win the rights to the OASIS and an enormous fortune.
Wade lives in extreme poverty. He goes to school in the OASIS, because schools in his area IRL are underfunded and unsafe. He lives in a kind of sup-ed up trailer park where trailers are stacked on top of one another 20 stories high. After his parents’ death, he went to live with his aunt who either ignores or abuses him. But he’s holding out hope that his love of OASIS and vigilant study of the creator’s 80’s obsessed life will help him to find the easter egg and get the money to leave his life behind.
Ready Player One is a popcorn read. It’s fun, light-weight and the story flies by. The story is filled with fan-service that makes it easily popular with a crowd that can remember arcades and Sega Genesis. However, I wouldn’t go in expecting fantastic characters or too much world-building. The characters have, generally, some pretty basic motivations and backstories. The relationships are fairly straight-forward. Boy has best friend (username: Aech), boy meets girl online (username: Art3mis), etc… The plot itself is similarly straight-forward.
You are in for a treat if you like obviously bad bad guys with little to no nuance. In fairness, I often like this. The big bad in the book is a group called the Sixers (or Suxors) they’re basically representatives of a company that has put its resources to finding the easter egg, taking over the OASIS, and monetizing it. Be prepped for some ham-fisted moralizing about companies, capitalism, and open sourceiness.
The world inside the OASIS is pretty neat with an interesting minecrafty set up. Outside of the OASIS, you don’t really get a lot of explanation for why the world is in its current state. That, for me, is kind of a bummer, but it’s not really the point of the book, and considering that about 80% happens in OASIS, it’s not too much of a distraction.
Overall, Ready Player One is fun. It’s a vacation, on-an-airplane, get ready to be nostalgic adventure.
As a big bonus: Wil Wheaton narrates it. He’s perfect for the role.